Pushback from parents helps weaken Boy Scouts’ iron wall against gay members
By Marc Fisher,
The foot soldiers of the revolution that struck the Boy Scouts of America last week worked for no general, followed no strategy, represented no cause.
Denise Steele just wanted to be part of her son’s Scouting experience in Loudoun County — and couldn’t fathom why she, alone among the parents in her boy’s den, was not permitted to join him at Boy Scouts summer camp.
In Silver Spring, Rick Meyerdirk was driven by the sweet idea that his son Tyler might join Boy Scout Troop 1444, the same troop Meyerdirk had been in as a kid, meaning that the son’s name might end up on the same plaque as the father’s.
What stood in the way of those simple goals was the Boy Scouts’ policy prohibiting gays from being Scouts or parent volunteers — a policy that the organization announced last week it may reverse at its board meeting on Wednesday. What pushed the Scouts to this turning point was a combination of declining membership, financial pressure from donors, and the street-level reality embodied by people like a straight couple in Silver Spring who want the Scouts to be open to all and a lesbian mother in Northern Virginia who saw Scouting as a great way to serve her community and connect with her son.
Meyerdirk’s wife, Theresa Phillips, didn’t even know that the Scouts banned “open or avowed homosexuals” from their ranks until last summer. That’s when she heard that the Boy Scouts of America, after a two-year study of its policy, had reaffirmed its exclusion of gays, saying they are “not an appropriate role model . . . for adolescent boys” and that gay volunteers would “interfere with the mission of enforcing the values of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law.” In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, upheld the Scouts’ right to exclude gays.
“I did a lot of soul searching, and I had to consider leaving the pack,” says Phillips, a stay-at-home mother with four young children. She had never been an activist, had no ties to any gay rights group, didn’t even know of gays who wanted to join her son’s Cub Scout pack in the Cloverly section of Silver Spring.
But although they had been involved in Scouting all their lives — Rick as a Cub, Boy and Eagle Scout, and Theresa in the Girl Scouts — the couple couldn’t see being part of an organization that excluded some people for who they were, rather than for what they did.
“Gay people are just as worthy of being in the Scouts as anyone else,” Phillips says.
So in September, Meyerdirk and Phillips, who were parent leaders in son Tyler’s pack, put the question to their fellow parents: Should we state on our Web site that “Pack 442 WILL NOT discriminate against any individual or family based on race, religion, national origin, ability, or sexual orientation”?
Yes, we should, said 84 percent of the parents who voted. Yes, you may, said a vote by the Lions Club of Colesville, which sponsors Pack 442. And so Pack 442 plastered its defiance of the national policy on its Web site.
Only one family disagreed strongly enough that they pulled their son out of the pack, Phillips says.
(The debate was entirely among parents; the group agreed early on that the topic was not appropriate to present to the pack’s 46 Scouts, though many parents talked about the issue with their kids at home. Tyler, who is 11, thought it was a no-brainer: Anyone should be allowed to be part of Scouting. “Why wouldn’t they let them in?” he asked.)
“What I learned from Scouting was honor and respect for others and doing the right thing even when it has consequences,” says Meyerdirk, who works in home improvement. “I really was looking forward to my son joining the troop I was in as a kid, but our community does not believe in excluding people, and we felt like we couldn’t be part of a group that did that.”
Pack 442 wanted a more assertive approach than a mere don’t ask, don’t tell policy, so the pack sent its statement to the National Capital Area Council, which governs the 56,000 Scouts in 1,700 units in the Washington area. Through the fall, the council and the pack discussed how to handle the matter, with Scouting executives arguing that, as Phillips recalls it, “it’s one thing to say we welcome all families, but it’s another to put it up on the Web for all to see. They really didn’t like that.”
Then, in January, the council got tough, ordering that the statement be removed or the pack might lose its status as an official Boy Scout group.
Les Baron, chief executive of the council, declined an interview request but issued a statement saying that Scouting’s “national membership standards continue to generate impassioned discussion . . . and we welcome and encourage civil debate.” But “it is our responsibility to support all of BSA’s policies.”
Two weeks ago, Pack 442 agreed to take down the statement. But it didn’t go silently: “Due to pressure from the National Capital Area Council,” the Web site now says, “Pack 442 was forced to remove its Non-Discrimination statement in order to keep our Charter.”
Then, last Monday, word came from Boy Scouts headquarters that the national policy that bans gays might be scrapped, allowing each chartering organization — the nonprofit groups that sponsor Scout units and provide them with meeting places and leadership — to make its own decision about gay members.
About 65 percent of Boy Scout units are sponsored by faith-based groups, 23 percent by civic organizations and 8 percent by schools. Mormon, Baptist and Catholic churches, which traditionally equate homosexuality with sin, are among the most common sponsors of Scout groups. Some Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran churches, in contrast, have stretched Scouting’s rules or looked the other way when gays volunteered.
“It’s very confusing that they were so strict with us and then they turn around and come out with this announcement,” Phillips says, “but it’s a huge step.”
Still, she worries that letting local groups make their own policies might split Scouting into starkly divided ideological camps, part of a larger trend toward sorting Americans by their political perspectives rather than blending people of varying views.
Pack 442 was hardly alone in pushing back against the policy. In recent years, Scout troops in Minnesota and Massachusetts, among other places, had issued similar statements, and many more troops quietly accepted gays without informing the brass.
Meyerdirk and Phillips think rebellions like theirs may have helped push Scouting to change, but they see their pack’s action as part of a larger social shift that culminated in both President Obama and Mitt Romney saying during last year’s campaign that they opposed the BSA’s position. Pressure also came from declining membership — there were 1.7 million boys enrolled last year, 20 percent fewer than in 1999 — corporate donors who withheld financial support in protest of the policy, and calls for change from some BSA board members.
Across the river in Potomac Falls, Denise Steele was stunned by Scouting’s decision to consider a change. Steele and her partner of 20 years, Jackie Funk, who live with their two children and Steele’s nephew, don’t trumpet their sexual orientation to anyone, but many of their neighbors know that they are lesbians.
Their kids’ teachers know, a few people at their church know and the scoutmaster of Troop 761 knew, because Steele asked him whether it would be a problem when she signed up to be an assistant scoutmaster. He assured her it would be okay.
“If you know us, you don’t know us as gay,” says Steele, 41, who works in IT but is between jobs. “We’re just Jackie and Denise.”
For six years, Steele was a parent volunteer and leader in her son Jackson’s Cub and Boy Scout units. She got involved when Jackson was in first grade, when parents were setting up a new den and there weren’t enough volunteers. Steele stepped up, teaching woodworking, plant biology and outdoor skills. No one mentioned her sexuality. She didn’t even know about the policy banning gays.
Then, two summers ago, when the boys were on a camping trip on Assateague Island, a fellow parent, also an assistant scoutmaster, saw Funk pick up Steele so she could get to work.
Skip Inabinett asked other parents who had picked up Steele. Informed that it was her partner, Inabinett called Steele and told her she was living in sin, needed to change her ways, and was violating Scouting’s rules.
The Bible, he wrote her in an e-mail the next day, “tells us to flee from sexual immorality. This is even more urgent given the culture in which we live that justifies sin and calls those who hold to God’s standard as intolerant and judgmental.”
Inabinett then informed the scoutmaster and other leaders that their troop had a lesbian leader who needed to be removed, according to his e-mails.
Reached at his office, Inabinett said he had “no comment on any aspect” of the incident or Scouting’s membership policy. In an e-mail to another parent, however, he explained his actions: “It is not being judgmental for Christians to hold to God’s moral standards and to hold others to his standards. God said that homosexuality is sin.”
Steele was removed from her position shortly after Inabinett’s complaint. Phil Holliday, executive pastor at Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, which sponsors Troop 761, said he had no comment on the issue.
“At a certain point, I said, okay, they’re a private organization and they can make their own rules,” Steele says. “But for a long time, I was really distraught. A grown woman crying about Boy Scouts! But it was a bond I’d had with my son since he was a Tiger.
“I live in an almost-entirely Republican neighborhood, but people here, because they like me and my partner, they overlook — no, they accept us for who we are. Why can’t the Scouts?”
Steele’s son, now 13, didn’t feel comfortable staying in a troop that had ousted his mother, so he switched to another one, which he loves — though he is sad that his mother, alone among the parents, was not allowed to join him as a volunteer at Scouting camp.
Jackson’s troop is always recruiting merit badge counselors, “begging for help,” Steele says. “I could be a counselor for at least seven badges, but I can’t sign up.”
The apparent shift in Scouting’s policy has given her hope she will be able to rejoin her son, hope that the one place where she has felt excluded will now meld into the rest of a life in which she has felt vastly more accepted during the past two decades.
That hasn’t happened yet, and Steele isn’t one to force the issue; her way of winning equality was to demonstrate that she was as good for the Scouts as anyone else — an approach aimed not at the people in charge, but at fellow parents.
In Silver Spring, the fate of Pack 442’s more in-your-face approach remains unresolved: the unit’s charter expired Thursday — without a charter, a unit is no longer recognized as part of Scouting and loses access to camps, badges, insurance and other programs — and its application for renewal has received no reply.
“Pack 442’s charter has been submitted for renewal,” Scout Council spokesman Aaron Chusid says. “We have no further comment at this time.”